from Maison Femme: A Fiction, forthcoming in 2015 by Bon Aire Projects
Louise and Marie drove away from the house, having rented it for the day to a production company that was filming a television commercial for an iconic brand of American beer. The beer commercial, entitled “Basement,” would air later that year during football season. It featured a fan whose favorite team scored points every time he went into the scary basement to grab another beer. In the commercial, the basement was called “down there.”
Marie and Louise called the basement the Press, or sometimes, the Basement, and when Marie was a child, “down there” referred to a body part her mother refused to name. The basement was only partially beneath ground—it had windows all around—and when Marie and Louise first saw it, they knew it was a place for making books. Louise liked to say the basement was the sole reason they bought this particular house, and some believed her. Before moving in, Marie hired a man to scrape and repair the basement’s brick walls, and another man installed six electrical outlets, the exact placement of which Marie decided with some arbitrariness. The basement, after all, was the foundation of the house, and while it had been used for many other purposes—dancing and painting and storing things and games of hide and seek—it came with only one outlet and Marie could see stains on the floor where water sat during times of heavy rain. Metaphors must matter, thought Marie as she looked at the giant L-strap anchors punctuating the basement walls, part of a retrofit after the Northridge earthquake. The women eventually put gutters on the house and this solved the flooding, so Marie could lie very easily on the large, maroon rug in the center of the basement, where she read Kathy Acker’s sentences, which could be, thought Marie, about the Basement or the Press: “One cunt’s like every other cunt. One ideal’s like every other ideal. When one dream goes, another takes its place. You’re sick of standing in this shit and so you step out.”
Marie discovered that making a book recreated the book’s insides; when she designed a book whose poems could be read forward, backward, or in a mirror, the publication process moved in this same way, and when she edited a book in which the narrative repeatedly undid itself, she saw her work repeatedly undone and the need for careful listening. One night, Marie sat shaking on a cheap office chair as she taped box after box and felt how thousands of books could drown her, and then she remembered her friend, Franz Kafka, telling her that very few people managed to be both a publisher and a writer. Another time, she traveled to New York for an artist residency, where she finished a draft of her novel, met Laura Riding, and once Laura Riding and Marie began talking, they could not stop! Laura Riding could read a book a day and a person in a minute, and the two women tended to drink too much together, and not because they planned on getting drunk, but they talked so intently that one drink led to just a bit more. In the morning, they laughed at their naughtiness, and apologized (they were both habitual apologizers), even as they knew such an evening would happily happen again.
But long before her friendship with Laura Riding, Marie asked a number of other friends if they would please come over and help paint the basement. For this was the beginning of the basement becoming the Press, and the Press was, after all, a nonprofit organization, which means it was, technically and from the beginning, publically owned. (Marie paused to consider the +/- of nonprofit vs. for-profit, especially in the realm of publishing poetry, a topic on which she was becoming somewhat of an expert, which really meant knowing how much she did not know and could not do. In any case, Marie had sat on many panels about publishing, and while some asked how to start their own Press, most of the time, on most of the panels, the audience wanted to know if Marie would publish them, and Marie wished they would buy books already published. This was a boring exchange, and Marie wondered how to make a different conversation, so she began fictionalizing her talks about publishing, telling listeners that when it came down to it, she and Louise were only interested in losers. “Failure is so popular these days,” she said, “in poetry, failure is inevitable and good, but what are you willing to lose?” Other times she asked: “What is the writer in your head?”) That day, the day of the painting, several friends gathered and painted, and this, in Marie’s opinion, was how writing happened: people working together in conversation, one action, one thought, building one upon another, standing, as one poet wrote, on the shoulders of giants. Except we’re not building what he wanted, thought Marie, and sometimes we’re unbuilding. Because when that poet wrote “giant,” he meant “genius,” but Marie knew that most giants were short, unnamed volunteers with breasts and/or vaginas and/or scar tissue and/or kinky hair.
“The most beautiful room I ever saw,” said Gwen Harwood as she wiped her mouth with a napkin, “had a cement floor colored with pigment.” Gwen Harwood had helped with the basement painting, and after the friends were done for the day, they sat on the grass in the backyard eating greens, fried chicken, and peach cobbler. “You could buy pure pigment at the art supply store,” continued Gwen, “and mix it into your cement coating material.” “What is pure pigment?” asked Marie. Gwen Harwood, who used to be a painter, said artists used pigment to make their own paints. Later, Louise and Marie followed Gwen’s advice and this is how the basement floor became dark cobalt blue.
“You know what else you need?” Dennis Cooper paused and waited for Marie to look at him. “Kathy Acker’s desk.” Marie gave a puzzled look just as Dennis Cooper looked away. “I have it back,” he continued, and his gaze landed on a bit of cobbler which sat, quite unexpectedly, on Gwen Harwood’s shoulder. “Kathy would like it to be there, do you know what I mean? As part of a feminist press.” Dennis Cooper had been good friends with Kathy Acker; he was also the executor of her literary trust, and had, since her death, been taking care of her things. This was how the women came to not only have Kathy’s desk, but her carpet, her dining room table, her side tables, her coffee table, and her big red reading chair. Evidently, Kathy was fond of the color red and also of velvet and leather, and because Kathy had not been a direct or early influence on either Marie or Louise’s writing, Marie felt that they had not chosen Kathy as much as Kathy chose them. Kathy Acker continued to creep in: they bought a painting made in response to a German translation of Blood and Guts in High School. The artist lived in what had been East Berlin; the book was smuggled copy and the painting was abstract, which was, technically and at the time of its making, against the law. The women also published a book featuring a fictional Kathy Acker, and another book filled with random facts about Kathy, written by Dennis Cooper.
“What kinds of stories?” said Marie. It was later and the women were upstairs whispering in one of the bedrooms, their voices periodically interrupted by a couch full of actors cheering for a fictional football goal scored in a repeatedly filmed scene. Louise wanted to know the best stories from the basement, and Marie thought about the various poets who had slept on the single bed tucked in its northeast corner. There was not, she realized, a single interesting story to tell about the sleeping poets, and not because they weren’t, to Marie and likely to others, interesting people who wrote and said many interesting things. But it is creepy to mine guests for stories and other bits of trade-gossip, and Marie had learned to be careful—some poets are weird! They say weird things about others, and share news that simply is not true! Yet she also believed gossip showed a healthy interest in the lives of others and that it would be good for some poets to think about someone else for awhile, but not in an envious or bitter way. It can be good, thought Marie, to imagine the subjectivity of another, as imagination makes us real.
“I have done many boring things in the basement,” said Marie. “I have made countless budgets and written several introductions.” Marie paused: “An introduction is not unlike the basement of a book.” Louise looked skeptical. “It’s the foundation,” Marie continued, “or the parameters. Not the reason, but the outline.”
“What,” she asked, “is a basement filled with books published by lesbians?”
A few days prior, Marie had read the introduction to a big book previously mentioned, a book tracing representations of lesbianism in Western literature. It was, she learned, the recovery of Sappho in the sixteenth century that set a string of images in motion. It was, she learned, publishing that began to create a languaged illustration of this two-women-lesbian-thing. The book did not, however, answer her other questions. For example, one day Marie heard that people she did not know considered her and Louise to be man-hating lesbians. What a strange thing for them to be thinking! Then again, thought Marie, so many people are sadly stereotypical, and she wondered why strangers cared about her feelings for men. More importantly, thought Marie, why are there so few basements in Southern California?
Yet the truth was when Marie thought about the basement, she thought about Leslie Scalapino and Andy Warhol, an unlikely yet undeniably cute couple, and the evening they sat together stuffing envelopes with invitations. Leslie Scalapino was an intern then, and she was coordinating the Press’s annual benefit auction, themed “As If.” Marie and Leslie had invited others to please come over and join them, but only Andy came, meaning it was just the three of them and Marie had ordered Chinese food, so they could really have some fun. Before then, Marie hadn’t spent much time with Andy Warhol, and Leslie later told Marie that he called her funny. This pleased Marie, for as the children could verify, funny was not a word people generally used to describe her. Later, after Leslie Scalapino married Andy Warhol, they asked Marie if she and Louise would make a book together, and Marie remembered the laughing and said yes.
I will write about the house, thought Marie, and how Louise said the basement was big enough for publishing. Marie licked her lips and imagined what they could do with the space.
Teresa Carmody’s books include Maison Femme (a collaboration with Vanessa Place, forthcoming) and a short story collection Requiem. She is the author of three chapbooks: I Can Feel, Eye Hole Adore, and Your Spiritual Suit of Armor by Katherine Anne. She is the co-founding director of Les Figues Press and a PhD candidate in English/Creative Writing at the University of Denver
(photo by Molly Corey)